Fifteen years since her drive back to college took a violent and deadly turn in Illinois, Tammy Zywicki is seldom far from her mother's thoughts. Subtle items throughout the family's Florida home make it so.
A clock featuring Tammy's beloved cartoon cat Garfield on a nightstand in a spare bedroom. Seashells the beach lover collected - some tucked in a grandfather clock, others in a jar on a bathroom sink. A soccer-themed souvenir she got in Spain. Photos of the green-eyed blond here and there, always smiling.
As another milestone anniversary of her daughter's stabbing death looms, the mother turns to the steely perseverance that has carried her through the onslaught of birthdays, holidays and special occasions that often torment families of the murdered.
Yet the 65-year-old woman wonders: Having weathered the highs and lows of seeing promising leads in her daughter's death fizzle out, will she ever see anyone pinned with the crime?
JoAnn Zywicki grapples with that anew as investigators work to unravel the past of trucker Bruce Mendenhall, who police say has confessed to six killings in several states, Tammy Zywicki's not among them.
Since Mendenhall's arrest last month at a truck stop in Nashville, Tenn., police there have fielded dozens of inquiries from law enforcement agencies and families across the country, hoping the 56-year-old man from tiny Albion in southern Illinois can provide clues to unsolved slayings going back two decades.
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JoAnn Zywicki is guarded about getting overconfident about whether Mendenhall holds the key to what happened to her daughter. This mother knows better, having been frustrated too many times before.
"There's always hope," she says, ardent in pushing aside notions that perhaps her daughter's killer is dead and, therefore, forever unknown. "Yes, I do recognize we may never solve it. But I know Tammy would say, 'Don't dwell on it. Hope for something to happen, but don't let it take over your life and go on."'
'A good, clean scrubbed look'
Tammy Zywicki would have turned 36 last spring, but tragedy forever keeps her 21 in her mother's mind: Long blond hair and glasses, always looking tan. Nice, pretty teeth in a family where good choppers aren't the norm. Never a fan of makeup, "she had a good, clean scrubbed look," JoAnn Zywicki recalls.
"She was just natural; that's a good word. For lack of a better term, she was an all-American girl," the mother said recently in a telephone interview from her home in central Florida. "She was not a really girly girl. She was more comfortable in T-shirts and shorts than anything. She just had a well-rounded attitude."
The kind of young woman, one of her coaches once remarked, who would be comfortable eating cheeseburgers for breakfast. The 5-foot-2, 120-pound woman loved naps, cats, photography and soccer.
She played halfback at Iowa's Grinnell College, the small school where she was to be a senior in the fall of 1992. Tammy, then from Marlton, N.J., was mulling graduate school, aspiring to perhaps teach Spanish some day.
It wasn't meant to be.
Tammy had just dropped off her younger brother at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago and had turned her 1985 Pontiac T1000 toward Grinnell on Aug. 23, 1992, when the car broke down along Interstate 80 near LaSalle, Ill.
A passer-by caught the last glimpses of her alive there at mile marker 83, hunched over her car's raised hood with a trucker who had stopped, ostensibly to help. A tractor-trailer was seen parked behind her car.
Tammy's body turned up nine days later hundreds of miles away along an interstate highway in southwest Missouri, shrouded in a red blanket sealed with duct tape. The young woman, who once wrote in a high school journal she didn't want to suffer when she died, had been stabbed repeatedly in the chest. She bled to death.
The horror of the story grabbed headlines: A college co-ed, in distress after her car fails her along a freeway, is snatched up, possibly by a predator trucker prowling the nation's highways posing as a Good Samaritan.
JoAnn Zywicki doesn't allow herself to think about what her daughter went through.
"I kind of put it in the past," the mother says, content clinging to one thing survivors of the slain can't always cling to as solace: "At least we have a body."
Finding the killer is another matter.
A cold investigation heats up
After Tammy's body was found, Illinois State Police joined forces with the FBI and other agencies in a task force, but it disbanded the next year. The investigation since, the FBI's Ross Rice laments, has been nothing short of "very frustrating."
"There haven't been any fruitful leads," punctuated by the lack of arrests or charges, Rice says from the FBI's Chicago office. "Nothing has panned out."
Truckers suspected in killings and sexual attacks elsewhere, from North Carolina to California, eventually were eliminated from suspicion in Tammy's death.
"After so many years, you always have hope, but you don't let it take over," JoAnn Zywicki says. "Whenever something has come up, you learn to handle it in a better way. As you get older, you try to take as much stress out of it as you can."
"You just never know what the one little thing is that holds the key to everything," she says. "There's somebody who knows something."
Investigators wonder if it's Mendenhall, whose trucking routes will be scrutinized to pinpoint whether he may have been anywhere near Tammy Zywicki's car the day she vanished. At the same time, the FBI's Rice says, investigators will check whether any military or prison time excludes him from consideration.
That vetting could take weeks, perhaps months.
All the while, JoAnn Zywicki moves on in the Florida home she shares with husband Hank - a retired civil engineer - and those carefully selected mementos of Tammy.
Never a believer in shrines, the mother years ago packed up her daughter's bedroom and gave most of the stuff to charity, saving soccer plaques, yearbooks and photographs to keep a bit of Tammy close. At certain times, the Zywickis might light a candle for their slain daughter.
"Birthdays come. Holidays come. Special occasions come. You can't stop them; you just have to deal with them," she says. "We have kids and grandkids, and we enjoy them. We've had births and deaths, happy and sad occasions. A lot of life in the past 15 years."
Then she pauses to crystalize how she finds strength.
"Sometimes, you don't feel like doing anything, but sometimes you just push yourself to do it," she shrugs. "You know you can't change it. You go on with your life, but you never forget."
The Zywicki case
Aug. 23 marks the 15th anniversary of the disappearance of Tammy Zywicki, whose slaying remains unsolved. Here are a few facts about the case:
Zywicki, 21, was living at the time in Marlton, N.J.
On Aug. 23, 1992, Zywicki had dropped off a brother at Northwestern University in Evanston and was headed for her senior year at Iowa's Grinnell College when her 1985 Pontiac car broke down along the freeway near LaSalle. Her stabbed body was found nine days later wrapped in a blanket near Interstate 44 in southwest Missouri, between Springfield and Joplin.
Zywicki was last seen with her car at I-80's mile marker 83, between 3:10 p.m. and 4 p.m. the day she disappeared. A tractor-trailer was seen parked behind her vehicle. The truck's driver was described as a white man between 35 and 40 years old, over 6 feet tall, with dark, bushy hair.
Investigators are scrutinizing whether there's any link between the Zywicki case and Bruce Mendenhall, a man from Albion who police say has confessed to six killings in several states, Zywicki's not among them. Mendenhall was arrested last month at a truck stop in Nashville, Tenn.